World AIDS Day

When doctors in India found out that Gita Bai was HIV-positive, they denied her pre-natal care. She soon returned to the hospital when contractions started—and the doctors physically barred her from entering the building.

Gita delivered her child on the street outside the hospital.

Doctors finally admitted her a couple days later when she experienced post-delivery complications. They could've given her medicine that would have minimized her child's risk of contracting the disease—but instead, they didn't even tell her about the drug. Gita died a few days later, from the bleeding and sepsis that would've been prevented had she been given the same care as a woman without HIV.

The purposes of World AIDS Day, on December 1, are many. Here at the Center for Reproductive Rights, we unite in the fight against the pervasive stigma and discrimination that women with the HIV virus face. And we remember those, like Gita, who died because their HIV status led to the violation of their right to health. Too many women in too many places encounter barriers to medical assistance and reproductive healthcare, denying them equality and dignity in society.

That's why the Center submitted a paper to the Global Commission on HIV earlier this year. Relying on in-depth research textured with stories like Gita's, the Center called on the Commission to develop, through policies and laws, an environment that protects the reproductive rights of the nearly 17 million women living with HIV or AIDS, according to figures jointly published in 2010 by the World Health Organization and UNAIDS.

The stigma and discrimination engendered by HIV and AIDS translate into terrible outcomes of all different kinds. In certain parts of the world, HIV-positive people are routinely denied medical services. Others avoid hospitals and doctors, shamed by previous mistreatment. One woman said, "I tolerate as much pain as I can, until I cannot tolerate it anymore."

From mental and physical abuse to egregious human rights violations and outright violence (in 2008, five women were murdered because of their HIV status), women suffer worldwide, quite often after being ostracized by family and friends.

  • In Kenya, a woman living with HIV gave birth and then was essentially abandoned by hospital staff. She bled alone on her bed while her baby lay next to her, filthy from afterbirth, not swaddled and exposed to too-cold temperatures.
  • A Nigerian bank required a newly hired worker to take a blood test and then fired her when the test revealed she was pregnant and HIV-positive. The company had an official policy not to hire pregnant women or anyone with HIV.
  • In Chile, in 2002, doctors forcibly sterilized a woman during a cesarean delivery. There was no discussion, no consideration of the woman's hopes for building a family. She learned after the operation what had happened. "They treated me like I was less than a person," the woman said.

If only this injustice and inequity were confined to a few countries. In fact, reports suggest that cases of forced sterilization related to HIV have emerged in the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Namibia, South Africa, and Venezuela.

A virus does not make anyone less human. It does not warrant disgrace, hatred, or exile. And it should not bar a woman from exercising her full range of reproductive rights. Today, and every day, we stand with all women and men who live with HIV so that they may live as equals in society. We continue to fight for their rights so they may live freely, so they may simply live.